Why Bar Takers Can’t Remember What They Need To

Back when I first took the bar exam in 2013—

Wow, where did the time FLY? This is getting depressing already.

Anyway, I was able to write these beautiful rule statements. Something out of a treatise. Flowing with prose fit to be in a presidential speech. Baroque music in the background. Some renaissance shit.

What’s really depressing is that despite my perfectly memorized (and perfectly recited) rules, they were still mostly useless.

Ask the average bar taker, “Where do you want to be in February/July/exam time?” And that’s the dream they have—to have the “black letter law” memorized perfectly.

They chase after knowledge over experience and intuition. Mere exposure and familiarity over understanding.

Memorizing rules is important for sure! But memorizing the rules is merely the cost of admission. What’s the real goal here?

Not just knowing the law but knowing how to use the law.

Be conscious about your approach:

Rather than jumping in and brute forcing your way to MORE MEMORIZATION, MORE FLASHCARDS, MORE PRACTICE QUESTIONS (yes, I said it)… 

Consider more understanding, more recitation from memory, and more feedback and self-critique to reflect on why something is correct or not.

Optimizing for “knowledge” and familiarity looks like this:

  • Focusing on “studying” (reading, watching, making flashcards, etc.)
  • Focusing on memorizing the words
  • Focusing on feeling “safe”
  • Some practice and then getting scared to do it again the next day
  • Letting your future self wing it on test day
  • “I need perfect knowledge before I start.”

Compare that with optimizing for learning and improving:

  • Realizing that the point of bar preparation isn’t to be prepared already—it is to become prepared through polishing
  • Focusing on application, getting in the ring, trying, failing, starting things open book and untimed, peeking at the answers, testing yourself—an ugly process that has let go of perfection and ego
  • Gaining intuition of what’s important and tested
  • Some consumption, memorization, passive studying to get you started with a general familiarity
  • Reviewing your work to learn from it and improve for the next time
  • “I start in order to gain the knowledge I need”

Which one sounds more effective? And just more fun and exciting?

You can’t measure improvement with one approach, but you can with the other. That’s exciting!

On the other hand, “knowing” something but not knowing how to USE it is unsettling, frustrating, and terrifying. You’re just mortgaging your future confidence.

Let me know if that resonates with you.

This is the intellectual’s curse: You think you can beat the bar exam by thinking your way through. You try to rely on that intellect and “logic” that you’re so proud of, and get humbled.

You can’t just “think your way through” and expect real change. This is especially tempting and problematic for intellectuals like you.

This is tricky to see. A lot of people fall into this trap of safety.

I’ve done it. Maybe you have too. Memorizing is important and necessary… but some stay in this monkey’s fist trap for weeks, months, OR EVEN YEARS.

The disappointing part for me is watching perpetual repeaters KNOW what they need to do. But if knowledge is all we needed, we’d all be getting everything we wanted.

People write me every year and ask why they’re stuck, but the answer is already in front of them.

I learned my lesson the hard way. I got burned by my overreliance on getting ready to get ready. Here’s what I wrote to myself on July 22, 2013:

(As part of an online course I took… Yes, I was investing in myself even then, when I was broke af. How can I ask you to do the same with me if I don’t practice what I preach?)

“My biggest worry at this point is the upcoming bar exam. I will never feel optimized, but I can focus on practice now that I’ve built foundation of theoretical knowledge the past 2 months.”

Just WTF were you thinking, Past Brian…

Building “theoretical knowledge” for 2 months and NOW you’re going to try to use it? At least you have a whole week until the exam, right??? I want to sue myself 🤡

But no one teaches us these things. It’s up to us to find out why something isn’t working. Always has been. 

Given that I myself was thinking like the average bar taker at one point, I don’t blame anyone for acting on their fear as a bar taker.

Making mistakes is normal, and it’s better to make them sooner rather than later… If not now, if not a week before the exam, then before your next attempt.

Fortunately, I was able to overcome the curse on my second attempt at the bar exam. I was trying and doing and experimenting like someone with nothing to lose (even though I had plenty to lose). You can’t be doing ordinary things to achieve the extraordinary.

The way to overcome it and make real progress is to MOVE. Don’t just fucking sit there staring at the pages. The best way to remember is to DO.

Yes, I know it hurts and it’s tiring and your body is screaming at you to do anything but study. It’s easier to just “know” the words without testing yourself. No one said it was going to be easy.

But you don’t have to dive straight into the deep end of the pool. Lean a little into the uncertainty, get through that small uncertainty, and gain a bit of confidence.

“If you want to build confidence, you have to be on the court.”—Pat Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ tennis coach

So that’s why, until you become aware and can combat the curse, this needs constant reminding (even if you think you “know this already,” which is the most dangerous thought).

It takes a toll on you if you stay cursed for too long:

1) It takes a mental toll.

It’s actually harder to think about doing things than actually doing them.

Not to mention, memorizing all the time is BOOORING. It’s more exciting to USE what you think you learned in different situations.

Don’t just stand there. Give it a try. Would you rather yearn by the window like a loser watching the other kids because you’re afraid of falling off the bike… or go out and feel the wind (and yes, the dirt also!)

The more you’re dying in the video game, the more you’re learning how to win. Almost like you’re some kind of advanced AI or something.

2) It takes a financial toll.

You think the next outline is going to be the holy grail.

You become a tool collector and get overwhelmed. You try different big box courses and smaller courses. Maybe it works. Maybe it’s a waste of money. Depends on how you use it.

You might end up taking the exam over and over, paying testing fees and subscriptions to supplements out the ass every time (although I have coupons that will help). This also means you’re losing out on opportunities and delaying your professional career.

It’s perpetually uncertain and frustrating.

3) That takes an emotional toll.

You hit the books (again) because your last practice set was depressing.

You’re surrounded by “theoretical knowledge,” yet you lose morale.

You actually feel LESS confident over time. It saps your energy and motivation to play defense, like a car that breaks down in your garage because you’re keeping it safe not driving it.

So you think you’d better go even deeper into your safe space of memorizing and hoarding more knowledge. A cycle of memorizing causing more memorizing, just to be sure, just in case, until you can start facing yourself with courage.

In fact, if I had to choose one or the other, I’d go with “just in time” learning over “just in case” learning.

Put another way, don’t try to know everything before you solve past exam problems. Get to know what you need to know as you go. This helps you focus on what’s being tested and what’s important, ESPECIALLY if you’re in a time crunch.

If you take anything away, it’s this: It’s better to learn via failure and lean toward your fear than hoard knowledge to get away from your fear.

So what are you going to DO about it?

A lot of repeaters (and frustrated first timers) come back to me after being tired and stuck, FINALLY ready to figure this out once and for all.

It doesn’t make me feel good to hear “I wish I would have listened.” I wish they had just passed the first time around.

So, if you’re a repeater, I hope you’re ready to consider this. If you’re a first timer, I’m also fine with it if you need to get burned first.

Behavior change starts internally, not externally. You’re not going to magically start putting yourself out there in front of another hypo—until you do.

Again, don’t get me wrong. Memorizing is REQUIRED. It’s simply the cost of admission.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees, and don’t get caught on exam day with your pants down. More on myths of memorization here:

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